Columns » Max Brantley

Brantley: A turkey for North Little Rock

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Tracy Steele and Joe Smith image

North Little Rock voters who are able to wobble to the polls the Tuesday after Thanksgiving may set the table for another sort of feast in the mayor's office.

A runoff is set matching Joe Smith, current chief of staff to retiring Mayor Pat Hays, against state Rep. Tracy Steele.

Steele, with 48.2 percent of the vote, very nearly won over Smith, with 41.1 percent, without a runoff. He's a charismatic candidate. Smith is not. Steele, who is black, has built a biracial coalition, helped enormously by North Little Rock School District supporters. They organized mightily, with Steele's backing, for a big and important tax increase to rebuild the school district while the Hays administration sat on the sidelines, huffy about the district's rejection of the mayor's scheme to finance downtown redevelopment with school property taxes.

Steele, clearly the favorite, has been helped by voters' short memories and the failure of the press to refresh them. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, for example, editorially endorsed Steele. It lauded his "record of accomplishment" and his "leadership."

Some record, as clips in the very same newspaper attest.

Steele's time as executive director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission was a perpetual cat fight. The Commission tried repeatedly to fire him. It became such a roiling mess that legislation had to be introduced to reconstitute the agency.

Part of the objection to Steele came in having a member of the state legislature heading a state agency financed by the body in which he sat. Yes, he lobbied the legislature for money for the commission, all the while proclaiming there was no conflict. He also solicited money from private sources to pay for King activities. Those sources included entities with interests before the legislature.

There was a time when this double-dip bothered the Democrat-Gazette. On an occasion when Steele was using his senatorial power to block the appointment of a foe to the commission that employed him, the newspaper editorialized about Steele's citation of a statute that allowed him to be both a senator and hold a state agency job. Wrote the newspaper:

"The question isn't whether he can hold both jobs; the question is whether he should."

Do-right rule questions arise with Steele repeatedly.

• Steele threw in with corporate power player Deltic Timber in 2005 to gut watershed protection for Lake Maumelle, which provides drinking water to North Little Rock. Central Arkansas Water figured out how to get to Steele's heart several years later. It hired a firm headed by Steele's brother to do PR and ad work. That firm has, coincidentally, benefited in other ways from state business during Steele's legislative tenure. A newspaper Steele headed, Stand News, benefited from state agency advertising. Deltic advertised there, too.

• Since departing the M.L. King Commission, Steele has led the nonprofit Stand Foundation, which is said to put on leadership programs for youth. Roughly one of every two dollars raised by the foundation pays Steele's $77,000 salary, a large percentage for a nonprofit. The best nonprofits spend 80 percent of their money on direct services, not including the boss' pay.

• The Stand Foundation depends on private contributions. Steele has solicited money from corporate lobbyists as a legislator. It also depends on government grants. It got about $8,500 in the current year, from such places as the Department of Workforce Services and the Department of Human Services. Has Steele ever filed the required disclosure form when he votes on legislation on which he might be perceived as having a financial interest — such as appropriations to agencies that contribute to the kitty from which he's paid? There is no disclosure form currently on file for Steele on any topic, a House spokesman said.

Supporters of Steele say the Hays administration plays politics the same way. Faint praise.

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